Cornhill Magazine,  5 (1862), 311–18.

A Vision of Animal Existences

[Edmund S Dixon]


Short Fiction, Dialogue


Zoological Gardens, Collecting, History of Science, Zoology, Menageries, Taxonomy, Reading, Natural History, Darwinism, Evolution, Creation, Anthropomorphism, Geology, Descent, Gender, Morality, Design, Imagination, Natural Law, Truth

People mentioned:

George L Leclerc, comte de Buffon , Charles Lyell , Phineas T Barnum

    Resting in a 'refreshment-room' amidst 'the world of brutes assembled in the Zoological Gardens', the narrator notices a 'middle-aged lady of thoughtful aspect [...] perusing a thick volume, which I recognized', accompanied by 'a curly-pated urchin' who amuses himself with 'a box of toy animals' by 'knocking them together, to try which was the strongest, and then throwing the fragments away, only keeping such of the wooden effigies as were able to resist the shock' (311). After reflecting on the history of zoological gardens, and noting that the lady's 'green-covered book teaches that the world of plants and animals is a world of incessant change', he complains aloud at the 'knot of French professors and English imitators [...] presuming to take the reins out of Nature's hands, and to mould at its will the wonders of creation!' (312). At the mention of the final word, the lady reveals the 'classical Phrygian cap' beneath her bonnet, and hands the narrator a card 'inscribed with my name and official title [...] natural selection! Originator of Species!'. The boy too introduces himself as 'struggle-for-life, sir, at your service'. (313) In the form of a dialogue the two direct the astonished narrator through the evidence for 'descent' and 'genealogy' being 'the clue to the proper classification of all the living things we see around us' (317). Indeed, with the aid of 'a telescope through which you can look back in time for thousands and thousands of generations ago' (315), he views the 'enormous transmutation of habits, aspect, and organization' that have produced species such as the domestic horse. Asserting that there 'is no purpose' in nature (316), the lady assures the still bewildered narrator that 'Nature—the grand totality of organized beings—is a genealogical tree, each of whose branches has produced, produces, and will produce, different leaves and fruit', and tells him that she and the boy are 'the gardeners who train its growth' in accordance with 'relentless and inflexible' laws (317). Responding that 'what you state of the world of brutes is applicable by implication to the world of men' thereby condemning the 'milder qualities of humility, forbearance, modesty, [and] self-denial' to extinction, the narrator comments, 'the future which you promise is not cheering. Strength is to prevail throughout' (317). At this point, however, he realises that he had fallen asleep and has in fact been 'dreaming' the entire narrative. Upon leaving the refreshment-room he asks the now bonneted lady her opinion of Charles R Darwin's book, and she replies that it 'is conscientiously reasoned and has been patiently written. If it be not the truth, I cannot help respecting it as a sincere effort after truth'. (318)

© Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Project, Universities of Leeds and Sheffield, 2005 - 2020

Printed from Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: An Electronic Index, v. 4.0, The Digital Humanities Institute <> [accessed ]